On February 14, we published a piece about the vast difference between candidates running for school board seats in Orange County, which encompasses all of the schools in Orange County outside of Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

One slate – incumbents Carrie Doyle and Dr. Jennifer Moore, and newcomer Wendy Padilla will continue the school board’s success in serving all students, particularly those who come from marginalized backgrounds. They have been endorsed by a series of trusted organizations and community leaders, including Indyweek, Public School Strong Voters, and the Orange County Association of Educators. Former Hillsborough Mayor Jenn Weaver, former Orange County School Board member Hillary MacKenzie, and Sen. Graig Meyer have also endorsed this slate.

We wrote that the other slate of candidates – Bonnie Hauser, Cindy Shriner, and Michael Johnson – was backed by members of the local Moms for Liberty, Orange County chapter, who have written social media posts in support. The group was also publicly endorsed by the New Group of Patriots (NGOP), a right-wing group that backs conservative candidates and publicly champions Moms for Liberty.

Since we published the piece, the New Group of Patriots has removed these endorsements from their website. Bonnie Hauser’s campaign manager and treasurer wrote to us and said: “We were unaware of the group New Group of Patriots until you mentioned them in your write-up.  Ms. Hauser, and I believe the others, have contacted the group and asked them to remove their endorsement.  If you check their website, the endorsement is removed.” (Update: As of 2/28, the endorsement is back online.)

Asking to have an endorsement removed is not the same as explicitly rejecting the views of the group. The NGOP website has now replaced their endorsements with “information,” listed in the same order as their previous endorsements. (Most informational sites listing candidates do so in the order they appear on the ballot.)

The NGOP endorsements were removed, but the candidates still appear in the same order as the endorsements, as of February 21, 2024.

Hauser’s campaign manager, who has written us three times in the past week, also told us that “vetting is important” and called the research done by Indyweek “shoddy.”

We agree that vetting is important. Which is why we’re confused that Hauser – a registered Democrat – has hitched her wagon to conservative candidates and a network of organizations that  overlap in donors, members, and policy positions with alt-right groups like Moms of Liberty. The Orange County GOP, on the other hand,  has only endorsed Hauser’s running mates.

Looking at the network of PACs

Click to expand.

Friends of Orange County Schools

While Hauser and her team appear very invested in distancing themselves from explicitly right wing groups, like NGOP and Moms for Liberty, they are comfortable with endorsements from other groups, like Friends of Orange County Schools, that have very similar platforms and overlapping members.

FOOCS is a registered PAC that formed in February 2022. That year, they endorsed four candidates. Three of those candidates were also endorsed by the local Moms for Liberty, Orange County chapter. One candidate (Penny Carter King) endorsed by both groups received training from the NC Values Coalition, which “exists to build a coalition of Christians across North Carolina that values life, family, and religious freedom.” (Hauser donated $150 to King’s campaign.)

The group is profiled in Barry Yeoman’s excellent deep-dive on the tensions in the Orange County school system which notes the PAC “criticized the board for fixating on what [co-founder] Susan [Halkiotis] called “a socio-cultural political agenda” at the cost of student achievement.”

According to their most recent year-end report, filed on January 18, 2024, Friends of Orange County Schools raised $2,585.94 from just two donors—Susan Halkiotis, a registered Democrat and former school board member, and Earl Wesley Tye, who spent $1,139 on yard signs in December 2023. Tye, a registered Republican, and Susan Halkiotis were both central figures in the fight to oust previous Superintendent Monique Felder from the district, and donated $500 and $1,611.99, respectively, to FOOCS in 2022.

Other donors to FOOCS in 2022 include Larry R Roberts ($972), Stephen Halkiotis ($472.31), and Frances-Ann Moran Criffield. Criffield is a member of the Moms for Liberty – Orange County, NC private Facebook group. Roberts has contributed to the campaign of gubernatorial candidate Mark Robinson and gave $2,900 to Republican congressional candidate Courtney Geels, who ran against Valerie Foushee.

Focus on Fundamentals in Orange County Education / OCS Truth

Another group backing Hauser, Johnson and Shriner is a PAC called Focus on Fundamentals in Orange County Education. That’s a new name, as of a February 2024 filing. Prior to that, they were called OCS Truth, which formed in March 2022. Unusually, the website for this group has a completely different name: Orange County Citizens for Integrity through Engagement. All of these are the same organization.

OCS Truth started with two primary donors, Sarah Snipes and David Ogden. The former has posted flyers paid for by Focus on Fundamentals in Orange County Education for Hauser, Shriner, and Johnson on social media. The flyers repeat the messaging of Friends of Orange County Schools and endorse Hauser, Johnson, and Shriner.

Sarah Snipes has publicly called LGBTQ+ books “extremely harmful” and has spoken out against the COVID vaccine. Ogden helped lead efforts to try to ban LGBTQ+ books in Orange County high school libraries. An Indyweek piece notes that OCS Truth “along with Moms for Liberty, encourage[s] parents to monitor district curricula and speak up about lesson plans they don’t like, and file complaints about teachers who discuss race, gender, or sexuality in the classroom.”

Both Ogden and Snipes are members of the private Moms for Liberty – Orange County, NC Facebook group. Snipes is also listed as a leader in the organization in the chapter’s bylaws. Her title is “Orange County Schools District Leader”

In 2022, the Friends of Orange County Schools table outside polling sites distributed literature from OCS Truth.

Moms for Liberty, Orange County Chapter

Moms for Liberty’s write-up by the Southern Poverty Law Center notes that they “grew out of opposition to public health regulations for COVID-19, opposes LGBTQ+ and racially inclusive school curriculum, and has advocated books bans.” The Orange County chapter of Moms for Liberty is headed by Gretchen Schmid.

This year, Moms for Liberty, Orange County has not publicly endorsed. (There’s been a backlash when they’ve endorsed elsewhere.)

Instead, what we’re seeing is two things: first, people who have spoken alongside or with Moms for Liberty at school board meetings have backed the conservative slate of candidates. So have leaders in the local organization.

We’re also seeing the rhetoric of Moms for Liberty make its way into messaging for these other separate organizations.

For example, on Mom For Liberty’s website, they list the following priorities:

  • advocate for school district policies which support family relationships
  • support school board candidates who focus on educating not indoctrinating
  • Encourage school boards to adopt age appropriate curriculum and content standards
  • Submit official book reviews for books in our schools containing obscene and mature content

As anyone who follows these issues closely knows, what Moms for Liberty actually supports is banning books that address complex issues, banning schools from supporting LGBTQ+ students, and, ultimately, dismantling public education. The Friends of Orange County Schools has a similar agenda, cleverly couched in language that appears to be neutral but is in practice anything but. Under their “What Do We Believe?” section they list several bullet points that parallel those of Moms for Liberty:

  • Expectations for student conduct and corresponding rewards/consequences should be clearly defined and communicated to all students, parents and teachers and consistently applied.
  • Promoting rigid political and ideological agendas in school is generally distracting and divisive and a detriment to academic achievement outcomes.
  • Curriculum/instruction/resources should be evaluated in an open manner for age-appropriateness.
  • Transparency is essential as parents have a right to know what their children are being taught in school and, at a minimum, have a right to opt in or opt out of specific programs/instruction.

Not surprisingly, Hauser, Johnson, and Shriner have all supported policies that align with Moms for Liberty and Friends of Orange County Schools. For example, in a radio interview on February 19 Hauser decried the “distracting politics” of the previous school board.

“We spent more time talking about books and school renaming than the disparity of services across our schools,” Hauser said, failing to note that the politicization of school reading lists came from her newfound allies, not those she’s challenging.

In another interview, Hauser reiterated her claim that “distracting politics,” not Republican overreach, are what’s wrong with our schools. In the same interview, she supported a policy to “give families more voice by helping them understand how and when to reach out to schools and when to escalate,” which is coded language for a policy that would allow conservatives to petition to remove books and curriculum from the schools.

Public education is at a tipping point. 

Public education in North Carolina is at a tipping point. The number of homeschooled students in North Carolina has doubled in the past fifteen years. Buoyed by taxpayer funded vouchers—worth up to $7,213 per student—private schools are growing rapidly, and North Carolina now has the third-highest charter school enrollment in the country. Public school enrollment is flat or falling.  By redirecting money away from public schools, which serve students with disabilities, students from low-income households, and English-language learners at higher rates than private or charter schools, we are effectively both defunding public schools and asking them to do more at the same time.

The candidates running under the banner of Friends of Orange County Schools are part of a broader political movement to de-legitimize public education using language that would be familiar in districts that are much more conservative. Consider two bullet points in a recent flyer that they are distributing in support of Hauser, Shriner, and Johnson, calling them the “only school board candidates who have:

  • committed to making decisions based on how they impact children and teachers rather than how they align with division political ideologies and agendas
  • [have an] appreciation for establishing trust between the school system and the community through operational and budget transparency and respect for parents’ rights

This language, and this political platform, is indistinguishable from that espoused by the Orange County chapter of Moms For Liberty, which successfully ousted a superintendent and is part of a national organization that aims to end public education as we know it. (Imagine, for example, a future state budget that pays parents $7,213 a year, per child, to “homeschool” their children using free videos from right wing advocacy organizations. Even families who are committed to public education would be tempted by the prospect of receiving thousands of dollars of year to keep their kids at home.)

School boards have always served as a stepping stone for conservatives. As recently as 2022, the Orange County Schools Board of Education was considered a safe Democratic district.

If Hauser, Shriner, and Johnson win, we won’t be able to say this any longer. You can see all organizational endorsements received by all candidates here.


The clear difference between candidates in the Orange County School Board Race

Martin Johnson lives in Chapel Hill. He teaches film studies courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also a member of NEXT Chapel Hill-Carrboro and the Bicycle Alliance of Chapel...